Eli had almost managed to convince himself that the group would merely be meeting with some Palace official when they were ushered past a pair of red-robed and red-helmeted Imperial Guards into the Emperor’s throne room.
Even more than Coruscant itself, the holos and vids Eli had seen of Emperor Palpatine paled in comparison with the real thing.
At first glance, the Emperor didn’t seem like much. He was dressed in a plain brown hooded robe, with no ornamentation or glitz of any sort. His throne, while massive, was solid black and very simple, again with no ostentation about it, raised a mere four steps above the floor. In fact, the darkness of his robe made him almost disappear from sight into the black of the throne.
It was as the group drew closer that the eeriness began.
First was the Emperor’s face. The holos and vids always showed him as a dignified, older man, aged somewhat with the experience of life and the cares of leadership. But the holos were wrong. The face beneath the hood was old;
old, and creased with a hundred deep wrinkles.
Not ordinary wrinkles, either, the kind Eli’s grandparents had earned from years under the open sky. These creases were less like age, and more like scars or burn tissue.
The histories stated that the Jedi traitors’ last attempt to seize power had been an attack on then-Chancellor Palpatine. The histories hadn’t mentioned that his victory over the assassins had come at such a terrible cost.
Perhaps that was also what had happened to his eyes.
A shiver ran up Eli’s back. The eyes were bright and intelligent, all-knowing and utterly powerful. But they were . . . strange. Unique. Disturbing. Damaged, perhaps, by the same treachery that had ravaged his face?
Intelligence, knowledge, power. And even more than with Thrawn, a sense of complete mastery over everything around him.
The Emperor watched in silence as the party walked toward him. Parck led the way, Barris and Eli behind him, followed by Thrawn and the navy trooper and stormtrooper witnesses. The guard contingent Parck had brought remained outside the door, six of the Imperial Guards having taken over their escort duty.
It seemed to take forever to reach the throne. Eli wondered how close they would be permitted to approach, and how Captain Parck would know when he had reached that point. The question was answered as Parck came to within five meters and the two Imperial Guards at the foot of the steps glided to positions directly in front of him. Parck stopped, the rest of them following suit, and waited.
It was probably only five seconds. But to Eli it felt like a medium-sized eternity. The entire throne room was utterly still, utterly silent. The only sound was the thudding of his pulse in his ears, the only movement the shaking of his arms in his sleeves.
“Captain Parck,” the Emperor said at last, his gravelly voice neutral. “I’m told you bring me a gift.”
Eli winced. A gift
? For the Chiss of the stories, that would have been a deadly insult. Thrawn was behind him, and Eli didn’t dare turn around, but he could imagine the expression on that proud face.
“I do, Your Majesty,” Parck said, bowing low. “A warrior reportedly of a species known as the Chiss.”
“Indeed,” the Emperor said, his voice going even drier. “And what, pray tell, would you have me do with him?”
“If I may, Your Majesty,” Thrawn put in before Parck could answer. “I am not merely a gift. I am also a resource. One you have never seen the like of before, and may never see again. You would do well to utilize me.”
“Would I?” the Emperor said, sounding amused. “Certainly you’re a resource of unlimited confidence. What exactly do you offer, Chiss?”
“As a start, I offer information,” Thrawn said. If he was offended, Eli couldn’t hear it in his voice. “There are threats lurking in the Unknown Regions, threats that will someday find your Empire. I am familiar with many of them.”
“I will learn of them soon enough on my own,” the Emperor countered placidly. “Can you offer anything more?”
“Perhaps you will learn of them in time to defeat them,” Thrawn said. “Perhaps you will not. What more do I offer? I offer my military skill. You could utilize that skill in making plans to seek out and eliminate these dangers.”
“These threats you speak of,” the Emperor said. “I presume they’re not simply threats to my Empire?”
“No, Your Majesty,” Thrawn said. “They are also threats to my people.”
“And you seek to eliminate all such threats to your people?”
The Emperor’s yellowish eyes seemed to glitter. “And you wish the help of my Empire?”
“Your assistance would be welcome.”
“You wish me to assist the people who exiled you?” the Emperor said. “Or was Captain Parck incorrect?”
“He spoke correctly,” Thrawn said. “I was indeed exiled.”
“Yet you still seek to protect them. Why?”
“Because they are my people.”
“And if they withhold their gratitude and refuse to accept you back? What then?”
There was a slight pause, and Eli had the eerie sense that Thrawn was giving the Emperor one of those small smiles he was so good at. “I do not need their permission to protect them, Your Majesty. Nor do I expect their thanks.”
“I’ve seen others with your sense of nobility,” the Emperor said. “Most fell by the wayside when their naïve selflessness collided with the real world.”
faced the real world, as you call it.”
“You have indeed,” the Emperor said. “What exactly do you wish from my Empire?”
“A state of mutual gain,” Thrawn said. “I offer my knowledge and skill to you now in exchange for your consideration to my people in the future.”
“And when that future comes, what if I refuse to grant that consideration?”
“Then I will have gambled and lost,” Thrawn said calmly. “But I have until that time to convince you that my goals and yours do indeed coincide.”
“Interesting,” the Emperor murmured. “Tell me. If you served the Empire, yet a threat arose against your people, where would your loyalties lie? Which of us would command your allegiance?”
“I see no conflict in the sharing of information.”
“I’m not speaking of information,” the Emperor said. “I’m speaking of service.”
There was a short pause. “If I were to serve the Empire, you would command my allegiance.”
“What guarantee do you offer?”
“My word is my guarantee,” Thrawn said. “Perhaps your servant can speak to the strength of that vow.”
“My servant?” the Emperor asked, his eyes flicking to Parck.
“I do not refer to Captain Parck,” Thrawn said. “I speak of another. Perhaps I assumed incorrectly that he was your servant. Yet he always spoke highly of Chancellor Palpatine.”
The Emperor leaned forward a little, his yellowish eyes glittering. “And his name?”
“Skywalker,” Thrawn said. “Anakin Skywalker.”
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